In a medium based so heavily in the use of words, how much meaning can be found when those words cannot be understood? This was the question at the forefront of my mind going into Carleton’s first edition of Poetry Without Borders.
Poetry Without Borders invites the Carleton community to recite and listen to poems in a variety of languages other than English. German Professor Juliane Schicker, who first experienced Poetry Without Borders at her former institution, Penn State, organized the event with the help of her German 103 class. Put on in conjunction with National Poetry Month and Poem in Your Pocket Day, Poetry Without Borders promised to be an exciting international experience for all.
The presenters of the night read nineteen poems in twelve languages, ranging from German to Kazakh to American Sign Language, and including three poems written by Carleton students themselves. The English translations were projected on a screen for the audience to follow along if they wished. This format offered a truly unique way of experiencing poetry, that is, the listeners most often do not actually know what is being said if they choose only to listen.
But while this makes it difficult to interact with the poems in the way one often does, it also opens up many new avenues of experience. Unable to understand individual words or even overall meaning, focus shifts entirely to emotion and sound. One can truly feel the passion, nerves, and confidence that come both from the poem itself, and from the actions of the one who recites it.
I personally could see the power of unintelligible poetry most strongly when comparing the German poems to others. As a German 103 student, I could kind of grasp some of what was said during the German recitations, but I almost wonder if this perhaps detracted from the overall power of the poems; in trying to understand the words, I sometimes missed out on the emotional force. Regardless, the presenters helped to bridge the language barrier and, at times, made the meanings shine through even when the words failed.
Not only did Poetry Without Borders allow for a new way to appreciate poetry, it also helped to foster a greater appreciation for language itself. The emphasis of syllable and sound so present in poetry made it easy to hear the beauty unique to individual languages, each evoking its own special response.
What stands out very much is the contrast created by the multitude of languages, differing from English by various degrees; be it Chinese, so different from English so as to be refreshingly new, or Old English, which elicited in me the interesting experience of feeling like I should be able to understand it. But the greatest sense of contrast came from the presentation of a poem in American Sign Language. Standing starkly different from the rest of this sound-based affair, the silence was almost the loudest sound of all. Seeing this poem showed me that ASL turns language into art in a way much different from that of spoken language, appearing reminiscent of a dance.
Truly, the beauty of the many languages partly makes me want to learn them all so I can better appreciate them, but I am also unsure, as that would come at the cost of feeling the power of unfamiliarity.
Following the recitations, presenters and audience alike gathered to enjoy snacks and conversation, discussing both language and poetry, and furthering the multicultural experience. Big thanks to the German and Russian Department and the Humanities Center for sponsoring the event, the German 103 class for their help in facilitating, and biggest thanks to Juliane Schicker, without whom Poetry Without Borders would likely have not come to Carleton this year.
Photos of the event can be found on the Facebook site of the German Department.